Commentary

My pledge to our nation’s veterans

It is a great honor to be nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as his secretary of Veterans Affairs. As I said at the announcement event in Wilmington earlier this month, I am deeply humbled by the trust and confidence the president-elect has placed in me. If confirmed by the Senate, I am eager to do my part in fulfilling what President-elect Biden accurately refers to as our country’s most sacred obligation: caring for our service members, veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

At the event I reflected on veterans who inspired me growing up and during my time in government service: my Marine grandfather, my high school football coach who served in World War II, all the troops I met on visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the wounded warriors I visited at Walter Reed. Knowing these brave service members and learning about how they and their families navigated the return home, with all its struggles and challenges, joys and triumphs, will continue to inspire me.

I will also bring to the Department of Veterans Affairs a deep knowledge of government. As a former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, I had visibility into every single federal agency and department. I saw firsthand that when our government is at its best, it can serve its citizens well and help Americans solve their problems. But too often it doesn’t, and when that happens, it breeds distrust and resentment.

Supporting veterans runs in my family. My wife, Kari, is co-founder and president of Vets’ Community Connections, whose mission is to assist veterans, military, and their families in successfully integrating into their community by expanding their local networks and involving all parts of the community. I’ve been proud to support her in the important work she does every day to lift up veterans.

As I look forward to my own new leadership role serving veterans, President-elect Biden has made it clear what he wants me to do: “fight like hell for our veterans.” I’m ready to take on that fight.

Our nation’s veterans know how badly this is needed. Long wars have taken their toll on our veterans and their families, and the physical and mental health care services available to veterans have not always kept up. Moreover, the dedicated men and women who work tirelessly to serve the department have been impeded by mismanagement, staff shortfalls, leadership gaps, and IT systems failures.

As secretary, I will work to rebuild trust and restore VA as the premier agency for ensuring our veterans overall well-being. VA will provide world-class health care to meet the specific needs of veterans, drive progress to eliminate veterans homelessness and bring down suicide rates, and create meaningful employment and educational opportunities. VA will welcome and serve all veterans, including women veterans, veterans of color, and LGBT veterans. Further, we will improve VA management and accountability. The agency charged with meeting the needs of veterans should not be limited by outdated tools and practices. Our veterans deserve the best we as a nation have to offer.

But as I have said before, taking care of our veterans is not the sole responsibility of VA. Every federal department and agency has a role to play — and as secretary, I will work across agencies to ensure that we deliver for our veterans at the level they deserve.

Finally, I know there are some who wonder if someone who did not serve in the military is qualified to be President-elect Biden’s nominee to lead VA. While I would argue that my skill set, deep knowledge of government, and executive experience have prepared me to serve the veteran community with the highest standards it deserves, I understand the basis for this criticism. Too often, at the VA and at other federal agencies, political appointees have lacked the perspective to adequately understand the needs of the communities they serve. I take that to heart, but with my experience and demonstrated commitment, I will do everything in my power to move heaven and earth to get the job done.

I can promise you this: I will carry with me the memories of all the service members and veterans who have touched my life. I will surround myself with a strong team, including veterans who will remind me every day — through their words, actions, and simple presence — of the community VA serves. And I will listen and be open to hearing from every veteran I encounter, so that I am consistently deepening my understanding of their evolving needs.

In Wilmington, I reflected on one of those veterans whose memory I will carry with me: my high school football coach growing up in Stillwater, Minnesota — Joe “Sam” Samuelson, who stormed the beaches of Normandy. I talked about how when he was in hospice at the end of his life, he and his family were grateful for the compassion of VA staff. When he passed, his wife gave me his coaching jacket — one of my most prized possessions.

During my tenure at VA, I hope that my own words, actions, and successes on behalf of the veteran community will earn your trust. I won’t rest until I ensure we are giving veterans the high standard of care and service worthy of their service to our country.

And in the coming years, I hope you will count me as one of those who have cared for “those who have borne the battle,” and their families, caregivers, and survivors.

Denis McDonough served as White House Chief of Staff, Deputy National Security Advisor, and Chief of Staff of the National Security Council under the Obama-Biden administration, where he helped lead the administration’s work on behalf of military families and veterans.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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